Our second post on radical children’s literature looks at the Puffin picturebook, The Magic of Coal (1945). The first books ever produced under the Puffin imprint, the Puffin picture book series began at the beginning of the Second World War with War on Land (immediately followed by War at Sea and War in the Air). The series was devised by Noel Carrington – then editor of Country Life – who approached the founder of Penguin books, Allen Lane, with the idea in 1939.  An educational and mostly non-fiction series, the Puffin picture books were largely inspired by Soviet mass-produced educational books for children. This Soviet inspiration is clearly apparent in The Magic of Coal – the 49th book in the Puffin series. Here Newcastle University English students, Lucy Campbell Woodward and Clara Heathcock look at the Soviet inspiration behind The Magic of Coal and the book’s Socialist message.

Cover from The Magic of Coal (© Penguin Books)

The Magic of Coal as a ‘production book’ (Clara Heathcock):

"Following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, soviet Russia identified the field of children’s literature as a highly charged political milieu in which the potential lay to educate the populace about communist ideology. The production book genre developed as an attempt to do just this.

Production books detailed the production process of economically essential resources such as coal or steel. Emphasis was placed on the difference between the capitalist and communist machinery used to create these resources; where capitalist machinery was shown to feed greed and overproduction, communist machinery provided a helping hand in creating a prosperous future everyone could enjoy. Thus production books clearly directed the child reader’s attention to a wider political narrative beyond the specificities of the text.

Production books were aesthetically modernist, combining ideas from abstract painting with typography to create a visual language strikingly different from what had gone before. Pictures held a machine-like appearance, using straight lines and elementary forms. By championing newness, it was conveyed to the child reader that they had the potential to be aesthetically innovative. Rather than simply encouraging them to learn to copy what was already seen as beautiful, aesthetic modernism puts more at stake for the child; if whatever they create has the potential to be considered beautiful, there is more incentive for them to attempt to create. Similarly, if a transformed communist society is shown to be a plausible alternative to today’s society, there is a greater incentive for the child to become an activist to help bring this society about. 

The Magic of Coal was published in Great Britain in 1945 and contains all of the features of a production book here discussed. Reference is made to, ‘our gas works’ and ‘our community, implying collective ownership, and all images are aesthetically modernist. Thus it is an example of the attempts of a popular front of left-wing publishers to bring the production book genre and its associated radicalism to Britain in the interwar period."

Internal spread from The Magic of Coal (© Penguin Books)

The Magic of Coal and Socialist ideology (Lucy Campbell-Woodward):

"The Magic of Coal introduces readers to the admirably technical and industrious world of coal mining. Taking the child on a journey, it tells not only of the production of coal but also elevates the miner as an important and  respectable member of society. In doing so, the text and its illustrations point towards a political goal.

The text focusses on the production process rather than around any one character. Each role within the mine is shown through illustrations and accompanying text, implying that there is something for everybody. Every individual has a skill set to offer in the production of coal and is a valuable cog in the machinery of the mine. A sense of a community at work is created and when combined with impressionist illustrations of tiny black figures and miners whose faces are blurred or have their backs to the reader, this sense of community solidifies into the socialist theory of collectivism.

The text informs the reader that the miners can attend the ‘pitbaths’ before or after work, challenging class boundaries as it suggests that before he enters the mine, a working-class man looks like, and therefore is like, any other man going about any other business. The text also tells us of the miner’s life outside of work, mentioning societies, theatre visits and higher education, indicating that the miners are not only important members of coal-fueled, modern society, but also respectable citizens with good standards of living and a thirst for culture.

The Magic of Coal presents the world of the working-class man as being not only respectable but also desirable. It implies that coal mining is important to a progressive society, thus the miners are as important as the ‘treasure’ they dig up. For many middle-class children this would have been a radically different literary theme in itself, however its advocation of  left-wing ideology further bolsters The Magic of Coal’s radical message."

Internal spread from The Magic of Coal (© Penguin Books)

Seven Stories Collections Department has a large collection of original Puffin picturebooks (including The Magic of Coal) as well as other Puffin-related material such as the Kaye Webb archive. If you'd like to find out more about these collections or others that we hold you can
email: collections@sevenstories.org.uk or phone: 01914952707.